The Northman is now showing in cinemas nationwide.
First, Robert Eggers mystified us with The Witch, then he made us fall in love with maniacal lighthouse keepers in The Lighthouse, and now, he has come to unfurl the epic Viking tapestry of The Northman. This bloody tale is told by some of Eggers’ typical collaborators, Anya Taylor-Joy, Willem Dafoe, and Kate Dickie – but there are a whole host of newcomers to the Eggers mythology, like Alexander Skarsgard, Ethan Hawke, and Nicole Kidman. Simply put, he’s hot stuff to work with – his idiosyncratic directorial style and deep dive into folklore and mythology appeal to the more experimental performances often found within the theatre.
The story of The Northman may seem remarkably familiar, even down to Skarsgard’s name, ‘Amleth’ – this is the ‘original’ Hamlet. You could say Shakespeare himself pulled from this Viking-era tale for his own revenge tragedy. It’s a much simpler tale woven by Eggers than his previous work – revenge lies at the beating heart of it, with Amleth on a dogmatic quest to pierce it, fulfilling his ultimate fate of vengeance. As such, sadly, there’s not nearly as much nobleman Hawke as some may like, but the brief time he graces upon the screen proves that he’s more than equipped as a player for future epic storytellers.
It’s clear that despite partnering with a bigger studio, Eggers’ visual style is uncompromised – constantly-centred framing and mechanical camera movements hark back to his silent-film experimentation on The Lighthouse, filling The Northman with a timelessness, dredged up for the modern-day quality. Ireland fills in for Viking-era Iceland nicely, with unforgiving breadths of mountains and isolating storms providing The Northman with a constant sense of emptiness, visually reflecting Amleth’s journey throughout.
Claes Bang is undoubtedly one of the strongest players as Fjolnir, Amleth’s murderous uncle. Bang has one of those demeanours that presents him as a man out of time, like Bram Stoker’s vampiric count; he is a traitorous lord with grand designs on a kingdom. Likewise, Nicole Kidman’s Queen Gudrún strikes a monstrously fierce and undeniably awe-inspiring impression, using her words as a warrior uses their sword in one of The Northman’s tensest battles without using a single blade or bow. It’s clear that Eggers constantly seeks to complicate and trouble our perceptions of who we follow and our allegiances in those we believe in or against.
However, something is missing in The Northman. There are so many good moving parts, yet the machine itself does not run as a whole. Eggers has spoken out about studio interference in the editing process and the arduous experience of test screenings and studio oversight, and perhaps that is where the central problem lies. Eggers’ voice simply doesn’t feel as present as it does in The Witch and The Lighthouse – the marketing of The Northman does a mighty job of presenting the epic revenge tragedy as something much weirder than it actually is. Though there are some peculiar moments that reach into that Gothic toybox Eggers enjoys, it still feels as though The Northman has been held back.
Where The Witch and The Lighthouse felt like unbridled creativity, The Northman feels like a compromise between an idiosyncratic director and a big studio concerned about some of his more off-kilter decisions. Given the incredible weirdness and downright disturbing material found in Norse mythology and even within Viking groups themselves, it just feels somewhat sanitized for a director like Robert Eggers. There’s not that same confrontational feeling that The Lighthouse brings with its confounding of clarity and constant mystification and complexity present in the two Thomas’.
The Northman is certainly another good film from Eggers, but it doesn’t achieve the greatness of The Lighthouse and The Witch – it just feels as though there’s something holding him back, and given his comments, it appears there may be some truth to that feeling. Either way, this is an epic Viking revenge tragedy – but that’s all it is, and that’s a little disappointing.
THE LAST DUEL
The Northman is undoubtedly another good film from Eggers, but it doesn’t achieve the greatness of The Lighthouse and The Witch.